Being vigilant against discrimination is hard when you don’t realise you or someone else is doing it. Unconscious bias is a silent villain in the world of discrimination and prejudice. Many people make decisions and act in a way that they don’t realise is fueled by bias. It is vital that we all acknowledge this issue and work to root it out of ourselves and our workplaces.

More and more so, companies across the U.K. are recognising their responsibility to their workforce and wider society to develop a more equal place to work. A big part of developing a diverse and inclusive workplace involves tackling discrimination in the workplace head-on. In all of the ways that it manifests. 

This isn’t always an easy process and it is one that requires a lot of self-reflection. Before we start to look at anyone else, we need to look at ourselves and our practices in an honest and accountable way. If we do, we can make real progress and change. If we don’t, we can continue the way we are and make no difference to the levels of equality, diversity, and inclusion in the country. 

In this guide, we are going to help you learn more about unconscious bias, how you can spot it, and, critically, how you can root it out. 

What is Unconscious Bias?

Unconscious bias is where one person discriminates against another individual or group depending on their identity or social group (real or perceived), or their association with a particular group, without realising they are doing so.  

This occurs as a learned reaction to how we perceive others in society. Due to the way we are brought up and the society we live in, often when we see other people, we don’t process them as a blank slate. Instead, we can automatically judge their gender, race, age etc. and what we believe this means about them. 

Given that we can be influenced by thousands of things every day without realising it, it is common for people to have developed deep-rooted biases against particular identities or social groups even if we recognise that we shouldn’t. Without self-reflection and awareness, we might never realise we have them. As such, when we then interact with people of those identities or social groups, we may be unconsciously biased towards or against them. 

This is different to regular bias. Not knowing what discrimination is or that you are doing it is not an unconscious bias but ignorance. Unconscious bias is where you recognise and understand discrimination and are actively trying to not do it, but unconsciously discriminate anyway.  It happens even when we are “good” people who are educated on these subjects. Recognising and rooting out unconscious bias requires deeper and more difficult work.

Let’s look at an example to understand it a little more. 

An Example of Unconscious Bias

For example, let’s take an employee, John Doe, who is over 50 and has a manager, Jane Smith. If Jane was to only offer training opportunities to workers who are under 30 because she believes they are a greater investment, that is not unconscious bias. That is Jane discriminating against John due to his age, even if Jane doesn’t realise that it is discrimination. 

However, if Jane had offered up the training to all of her employees including John but decided on a younger employee without any clear reason why, this could likely have been due to an unconscious bias. Without realising she has done it, Jane has excluded John from an important opportunity because of his age. In her mind, she might think of all sorts of reasons why she didn’t pick him, but unconsciously, it is all about his age. Jane might have gone through life learning that older people should slow down after 50 and that they aren’t as interested in learning/training at this age. Without actively thinking about it, these thoughts are still in her brain and she acts them out in her decision-making.

How Do You Spot It?

Spotting unconscious bias can be incredibly difficult, due to the very fact that it is unconscious. 

Spotting it should really be part of a wider cultural change for more open communication and criticism regarding discrimination. We should all recognise that everyone, including yourself, has unconscious biases and the only way to spot them is to be called out by others through open discussion. 

One method some people use to acknowledge their own unconscious biases is to take an implicit-association test (IAT), such as those developed by Harvard University

The very best way to spot unconscious bias is to have other people around you when you are making decisions. These people should be diverse in nature too so that you have a range of perspectives and backgrounds. Working collaboratively is the best way to balance out biases and help us see clearly. When we surround ourselves with the same people as us, they most likely have the same unconscious biases and can’t see them either. Diversity is key.

How Do You Root it Out?

First and foremost, you should cultivate an open and honest culture in which everyone feels comfortable speaking up about any experiences of discrimination. This will help you to reconsider any decisions you made in the past that may not have seemed discriminatory at the time but may have been the result of an unconscious bias. In turn, you will be more likely to spot it during future decision-making processes. 

A part of this is to slow down when making decisions. This bias is unconscious so if you really don’t take the time to elaborate on why you are making a particular decision you are far more likely to follow a discriminatory ‘gut instinct’. 

As we said in the previous section, it is also key to surround yourself with diversity. Especially when it comes to recruitment and promotion decisions, we need to be consulting with a diverse panel of people to make sure that our own unconscious biases aren’t running amok in the process. 

All we can do is continue to learn, develop and grow through a commitment to diversity and inclusion. As long as we want to do better and we actively and consistently try to do so, things will get better. But we all need to try. 

How We Can Help 

For a more detailed look at how to root out unconscious bias in the workplace you can familiarise yourself with protected characteristics protected by law, then our general guide for employers to developing equality, diversity and inclusion.

Over at Aspiring to Include, we have tonnes of information and guidance for employers searching for equality, diversity and inclusion tips. We can help you build your company into the best version of itself. We can also help you connect, fairly and equally, with diverse candidates looking for employers. Our services for employers can help find the best possible people for your job vacancies, all the while being as open and accessible as possible. 

If you want more information on disability-related bias and inclusion, you can also check out our sister site, Careers with Disabilities for more. 

We have something for everyone. As we all should.